Truth, lies and journalism

On Monday, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon is developing plans «to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations as part of a new effort to influence public sentiment and policymakers in both friendly and unfriendly countries.» The operation is to be run by the small and shadowy Office of Strategic Influence with a multimillion-dollar budget drawn from a $10 billion emergency supplement to the Pentagon budget passed by Congress after the September 11 attacks. Little is known about the plans, which have not received final approval from the Bush administration, as The Times noted. Even so, this was a shocking piece of news at a time when, after the mass murders of September, we thought we had become immune to shocks. One of the most precious ideas of modern civilization is that of a free and open press, working without bias to provide readers with the facts and to provide analysis and commentary to help citizens form their own understanding of the world. A free and open press will help solve disagreements and will reach a synthesis between opinions and cultures. This may sound bizarre in today’s competitive world, where media conglomerates are concentrating news power, but it is the foundation on which every good journalist tries to base his or her career. The truth is too important to be the plaything of generals – although the Pentagon is merely expressing age-old inner thoughts of authorities with regard to the news media: They all want to control the press, both to avoid the sometimes painful truth and to wield it against the enemy. American officials, however, promised subsequently that they would not tell lies. That, as applies to all officials of all nations, is the first lie. But there was even worse news for the world of journalists, and all civilized people, this week. Late on Thursday we learned that Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped by Muslim extremists in Pakistan on January 23, had been killed. The incontrovertible proof of murder – the corpse – was missing. But US and Pakistani officials were convinced anyhow: They had been sent a videotape on which Pearl said that he and his father were Jews. Then his neck was pulled back and his throat cut with a sharp object. He was slaughtered on camera. In its own, terrible way, this is a miniature illustration of every one of those 3,000 or so murders of September 11 – that army of civilians lost in the crash of the Twin Towers in a hell of flame and dust. Those crimes, too, were captured on video. Everyone who saw those images of the planes (especially the second one) slicing into the buildings will never forget them. That crime was seen by all, the victims remained anonymous. This time, the crime will remain hidden (unless some sick mind releases the videotape to the media), but we won’t forget the innocent victim’s face, the photos of his self-assured smile before his capture, his bemused trepidation when photographed in chains, with a pistol pointed at his head. How mixed up things become. On the one hand, we have some backroom boys in the bowels of the American military juggernaut planning propaganda wars in an effort to change the hearts and minds of people in «both friendly and unfriendly countries.» The end justifies the means, the plan’s supporters will say. Yet mere mention of the plan to blur truth and give lies will increase the danger for journalists, branding them, rightly or wrongly, as agents of the countries they represent. And it is the work of responsible journalists, like those who reported this story, that monitors what the Pentagon is doing but also tips off the rest of the world about such plans. On the other hand, we have the terrorists who resort to the most brutal, cheap and straightforward tactic of murder on video. And, in Pearl’s case, their message is unequivocal: Journalists are agents, the enemy. Plus they are easy targets. They will come to you and trust you, dizzy with the bait of an exclusive report. The end justifies the means. Of course, if the spy charges were not good enough, Pearl was forced to say he was a Jew, as if that justified his murder further. By all accounts, Daniel Pearl was a gentle soul, the kind of person who would try to present the alternative viewpoint. By kidnapping him and hijacking his story, his captors told the story with their own actions. The result was effectively a declaration of war, a statement affirming an unbridgeable divide between the world that sends a journalist trying to make sense of a conflict and the world in which bridges are useful only as means to carry out an attack. Pearl left the safety of America to work in the tumultuous world of south-central Asia. The chief suspect held for his kidnapping, a British-born Islamic militant known as Sheikh Omar, also left the comfort and security of the West. Their paths crossed in the shadowy slums of Karachi. If the two had only chatted in English… Instead, they were destroyed. The Western news media have long concentrated on presenting views of those opposed to their own governments, and every story depends on the journalist’s sources and personal judgment (and for which he or she will be judged soon enough). And this is where the Pentagon’s plan is such a corrupting feature: We must base our reporting on trust, on people telling (or avoiding) the truth, not that they will tell lies. Journalists must also be able to trust the protagonists not to target them. But, as the Committee to Protect Journalists says, 37 journalists were killed worldwide in 2001, up from 24 in 2000. In many cases, the journalists were killed merely because they were journalists, not caught in the crossfire. The messenger became the message. With videotape presenting evidence stronger than words, with generals planning to mold opinions, with the world becoming ever more dangerous, journalists are at greater risk but also more indispensable than ever before. They are the soldiers of civilization. They need respect and protection from both sides.

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